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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN Asks Business To Protect Workers

UNITED NATIONS -- Executives of Nike, Shell and DaimlerChrysler on Wednesday filled a chamber where diplomats usually conduct business, as the United Nations recruited many well-known multinational companies to help protect workers and the environment in places where governments do not.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan organized the session to encourage companies that operate across borders to spread Western-style human and environmental values or risk seeing the erosion of the consensus that favors open trade and investment.

Some 50 multinationals joined 12 labor associations and watchdog groups to sign a "global compact" that commits them to support human rights, eliminate child labor, allow free trade unions and refrain from polluting the environment wherever they do business.

Several signers are among the leading targets of protest groups that say the companies exploit workers and abuse the soil, water and forests in poor nations.

"Companies should not wait for governments to pass laws before they pay a decent wage or agree not to pollute the environment," Annan said. "If companies lead by example, the governments may wake up and make laws to formalize these practices."

Since the collapse of world trade talks and noisy street protests in Seattle last year, multinational companies have been scrambling to forge alliances with some of their critics, including unions and human rights and conservation groups. The compact sponsored by the United Nations is the most visible example of such alliances, and it is an attempt by Annan to make the world body a more effective force for social and labor standards.

The effort seems unlikely to alter the global economic landscape immediately. The pact, which took 18 months to negotiate, binds the signers to a declaration of principles rather than a legal code of conduct.

Several watchdog groups said the United Nations was participating in a "bluewash" f allowing some of the world's largest and richest corporations to wrap themselves in the organization's blue flag without requiring them to do anything new.

But the session showed how world governments and corporate leaders increasingly rely on each other to show they are helping the people left behind when companies move capital and factories around the world. Multinational companies, particularly those subjected to a barrage of criticism about the way they do business in poor countries, are now eager to join them.

But UN officials acknowledged they had trouble attracting some American companies, because the firms feared endorsing something that might legally bind them to act in a certain way and subject them to fresh scrutiny from watchdog groups.

Some social and environmental activist groups, including the environmental group Greenpeace, declined to sign the agreement. The groups complained in a letter to Annan that some of the companies that participated f it cited Nike, Shell and the British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto f had poor records of operating abroad and did not deserve to be UN partners.